U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 30, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 30, 2018. (James K. McCann/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — North Korea’s ballistic missile program made significant strides last year, but the nation has not yet demonstrated the technology needed to strike distant targets, such as the U.S. mainland, the Pentagon’s No. 2 general said Tuesday.

North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile tests in 2017 showed Kim Jong Un’s regime has developed missiles with the range to reach the United States, though it still appears to lack key components necessary to hit intended targets, said Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. North Korea has failed to prove it possesses a re-entry vehicle, the portion of the missile designed to return to Earth from space, capable of surviving atmospheric stress and delivering a warhead to a target or a guidance system necessary to direct the bomb to its destination, he said.

“Those are the kinds of things you have to be able to do,” Selva told reporters during a breakfast meeting in Washington. “It’s possible he has them, so we have to place the bet that he might have them, but he hasn’t demonstrated them.”

Selva’s assessment matches Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ statement last month that he did not view North Korea’s missile program as a “capable threat” now to the U.S. mainland. Mattis declined to elaborate on his comment, saying only the Pentagon was continuing to assess North Korea’s most recent ICBM launch. North Korea launched ICBMs for the first time in 2017, testing its long-range missiles July 4, July 29 and Nov. 29.

Selva said Tuesday that North Korea has grown adept at hiding its missile program and evading American spy satellites. Nonetheless, if Kim’s regime had the proven capabilities to hit a specific target with an ICBM, the American intelligence community would likely know.

For example, it is highly unlikely North Korea could test a re-entry vehicle in one of its underground test sites, Selva said, meaning such a test would almost certainly take place in open air where the United States could observe it.

Kim’s regime also has yet to fire an ICBM in a standard trajectory that would send the missiles long distances, which Selva said would be necessary to test the missile’s capabilities accurately. ICBMs are classified as missiles capable of traveling in excess of 3,400 miles.

In all three ICBM launches in 2017, North Korea fired its missiles at steep angles. In its most recent and most powerful test, the missile flew for nearly an hour, traveling 600 miles and reaching an altitude of 2,800 miles, according to a U.S. military assessment.

That missile could have traveled more than 8,000 miles, far enough to hit anywhere on the U.S. mainland, had it been launched at a standard trajectory, warned prominent arms-control expert David Wright, who is with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But it still lacked all the necessary components of an ICBM capable of striking its intended target, Selva said Tuesday.

Senior U.S. military officials have long said they have developed military plans to counter a North Korean missile attack should tensions boil over into violence. But Selva declined to speculate about a first-strike option against Kim’s missile program.

“Our method of warfare [is] if they launch one, then game on,” he said.

But Selva also said it was unlikely the United States would see signs that the North Koreans were preparing for an imminent missile attack in time to launch a strike to halt it.

The North Koreans have stringent concealment and deception protocols designed to camouflage their ballistic missile program, which includes newly developed methods for moving missiles to launch sites that are nearly undetectable, he said.

“We are as diligent as we can possibly be about watching and cataloguing their ballistic missile capability, but it is very unlikely that in a tactical situation we would get any of the indications or warnings that would precede a launch,” Selva said.

He added if the United States “got lucky” and observed the missiles being prepared for launch, North Korea could launch within about “a dozen minutes or so.”

The good news, Selva said, is U.S. satellite and radar detectors have shown they can detect North Korean launches almost immediately after a rocket is airborne. Those detectors can determine within moments whether the missiles pose a threat to the United States and prepare ground-based interceptor systems in California and Alaska to engage the target, if necessary.

Tensions between the United States and North Korea have relaxed somewhat in recent weeks since the North agreed to talks with South Korea ahead of next month’s Olympics in the South’s Pyeongchang. The Pentagon has said it is delaying major military exercises on the Korean Peninsula until the Olympic and Paralympic games have concluded in mid-March. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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